The Supreme Court, in a case of particular interest to lawyers and civil rights activists, agreed Tuesday to review a $181,000 attorneys' fee award stemming from a 1970 airline sex-bias lawsuit.
The justices said they will decide whether people who intervene in civil rights cases - and are not the principal defendants - may be forced to reimburse the lawyer fees incurred by those who successfully sue.The case stems from a 1970 suit that challenged the policy of Trans World Airlines to fire female flight attendants when they became mothers.
The policy was attacked as illegal sex discrimination barred by Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A nine-year legal battle was resolved in 1979 when TWA agreed to reinstate fired women with seniority from the date of their dismissal. The airline, which had abandoned its "no-motherhood" policy soon after the suit was filed, also created a $3 million fund for the fired attendants.
The settlement was challenged by the Independent Federation of Flight Attendants on behalf of TWA flight attendants who could suffer from the lawsuit's settlement by being laid off in favor of those with the newly won seniority.
The union acted as an intervenor in the suit, interjecting itself as a concerned third party rather than as either defendant or plaintiff.
The union's challenge to the settlement proved unsuccessful, and last May the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the union to reimburse the women who won the suit $180,915 in legal fees.
The appeals court noted that the union argued "that because it intervened solely to assert the rights of its non-discriminating incumbent members, it should be viewed in practical terms as a plaintiff and hence assessed attorneys' fees only if its opposition to the settlement was found to have been groundless."
*****> In other action:
In other action Tuesday, the Supreme Court:
- Allowed anti-smoking groups to see and publicize a cigarette company's research that the groups say could link smoking to health hazards.
- Ruled that a California redistricting plan that placed Democrats in control of the state's congressional delegation does not unlawfully discriminate against Republicans.
- Rejected a challenge to a state law exampting religiously affiliated child-care centers from some health and safety standards all other child-care centers must meet.
- Set aside a ruling that limited the access enjoyed by labor unions that represent federal government employees to the home addresses of all their members.